Avoiding strangers and conversations

Avoiding strangers and conversations

By: Larry McGehee

A minor controversy is catching fire here in South Carolina over a legislative act authorizing state license plates to bear explicitly Christian symbols. Previous efforts to do this had been struck down by the courts or by common sense, but this one slipped by. Opponents believe the act violates church-state separation and that it sends a message of religious exclusion offensive to citizens of other faiths (e.g., Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews) and to believers in religious diversity. Notice of this act reminded me of a lingering favorite peeve of mine-namely, the action many states took thirty or so years ago, removing county identifications-either in numerals or words — from state plates. Time was when there were no strangers on the road. The first three breaks in that tradition came 1) when interstates took us away from meandering, from frequent stops and starts, and from visiting, 2) when it was no longer safe to pick up hitchhikers, and 3) when states no longer required a front license tag so you couldn’t tell who you were meeting anymore. Add: 4) soaring gas prices today keep us from meeting strangers on the road by keeping us off the roads. A weekend trek back in 1988 took us by the Georgia border through portions of the two Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Because the billboards on the interstates were familiar and there aren’t any Burma Shave signs anymore, we indulged our favorite pastime of reading license plates to see if any were from places we knew. To our utter dismay, new license plates had suddenly appeared in almost every state. Most of them were brightly tri-colored, and several had identifying logos, but it was nigh impossible to identify the origin of the vehicles. Once upon a time we could strike up instant conversations with complete strangers at rest stops and restaurants simply by spotting a “Boyle” in bold print upon a Kentucky plate, or a “2” (Memphis) or a “26” (Paris) prefix numeral on a Tennessee plate, or a “3” (Montgomery) or “63” (Tuscaloosa) on an Alabama plate. Home-county recognition made it easy to prime the vocal pumps of fellow sojourners. Number codes or plain old block letters were the key to quick friendships–especially in the South where all of us are cousins sooner or later, given enough time (10 minutes or so) to trace family trees. By 1988 the county prefix numbers were gone from Tennessee–following the extinct but distinctive state-shaped plate of many years ago and of the parallelogram box that succeeded it. Alas! And Alas! Again, for the Kentucky county names once visible half a mile back had been reduced to Tom Thumb proportions legible only to the most daring of kamikaze tailgaters. I can live with pretty colors and pictures on the plates, I guess, although I question their usefulness. With palmettos located only near the beach in South Carolina and sea oats only near the beach in North Carolina, do western Carolinians feel inferior or overlooked by such scenes on the plates? And in Kentucky, where 50 years ago some colleges turned down gifts from the racetrack as “dirty money”, does anyone feel strongly about plates with horses? Of course, some athletic enthusiasts cover up the plate pictures with decals of red gamecocks, blue wildcats, and orange tiger paws, but that’s getting to be illegal. Another way around it is to buy a personalized plate with some cute phrase, Ike my dentist’s ICUB4DK. (I met a man with “PICK-UP” on his old truck who turned it in because it meant something else when his wife drove.) So now we can tell fairly easily what state a plate promotes, and we can, at the other extreme, personalize a plate to fit our individuality. But what is getting lost or reduced to fine print is that “in-between” area — the counties. And that may be intentional. I hear a lot of serious talk about how inefficient it is to have bunches of small counties, and how much more could be done by merging counties. A few years without county IDs on license plates has set the stage for that revolutionary act. Let’s stop pushing county school consolidations and push for counties consolidation instead. It figures. Just when so many little high schools in each county have consolidated into mammoth super County Highs to support semi-professional football feeder squads, we can start doing away with counties. What’s the use of winning a state athletic championship if you can’t read the counties on the license plates? Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 6.16.08

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